It's a trend that has played out on a smaller scale throughout the season. The book has changed on Manning, who now seems more vulnerable to the blitz than most of his career. Manning has completed 59.8 percent of his passes this season against the blitz, almost exactly 10 percent less than when he faces four or fewer defenders. His YPA against the blitz is 7.82, which doesn't rank among the top 12 quarterbacks. Manning isn't a bad quarterback when he sees extra pressure, but he's mortal.
St. Louis' defense used similar tactics to New England, sending pressure up the middle with their linebackers. The Broncos were slow to react. Left tackle Ryan Clady is also not having a great year, beaten more than we'd expect one-on-one by guys like Akeem Ayers. Manning is making a few more unforced errors on high throws and getting his receivers hammered with late passes. The running game is stagnant, and Wes Welker is not the same player he used to be.
This is not to say Manning is having a bad season; he's a strong MVP candidate who played his worst two games in the last three weeks. It happens. We're just so used to seeing dominance from him that any turbulence gets noticed. The Broncos face two of the league's best pass rushes over the next two weeks, so Manning will be tested to fix the Broncos' offense now, or risk losing the AFC West.
Manning's rocky patch wins my award for the "Most surprising November storyline." Let's pass out a few other awards before Week 12 begins:
Best revival act
Josh McCown has re-entered the mix the last two weeks with clean, competent performances. The Bucs don't have a sustaining offense, but McCown has overcome a shaky offensive line to hit some big plays to Mike Evans. McCown and Lovie Smith's "revenge" game in Chicago this week would be a lot more fun if these teams mattered.
Toughest to evaluate: Russell Wilson
In his third season, Wilson is more reliant than ever on his legs. His performance against Kansas City was a perfect example. His elusiveness and ability to keep plays alive were the primary reasons the Seahawks stayed in the game. But he also made poor throws in the red zone and rarely completed a play in rhythm. His talent at wide receiver and the offensive line is a big part of the problem, but Wilson and the system are not without blame. We also said Wilson had "no receivers" when Golden Tate was there.
Biggest overachiever: Alex Smith
He would be ranked No. 11 overall this week. It's taken me almost a decade to appreciate Smith, but his performance is hard to ignore. He maximizes his opportunities despite sub-par wideouts, protection, and arm strength. At age 30, in his second season with Andy Reid, Smith has a rare feel for the position. He plays with such a small margin for error, but he makes it work by going entire games with only one bad pass. He's erased the memory of his ugly, early years in San Francisco.
Best erasures of a bad first impression
1. Tony Romo: After an ugly first two games to start the season, Romo has been one of the steadiest quarterbacks in football. I'm curious to see how he looks coming out of the bye week. Remember, Romo was asked to do very little in Dallas' win over Jacksonville because of his back injury. It was a tough, smart performance, but the Cowboys need him to be a difference-maker down the stretch.
2. Zach Mettenberger: He looked like he didn't belong in his first start, one of the worst performances by any quarterback of the season. He's looked better in each game since. While Mettenberger can hold on to the ball too long, he is not afraid of the pass rush and can deliver some pretty passes when protected.
Most consistently frustrating: Matthew Stafford
Stafford's last two weeks sum up his season. His arm strength mattered on so many third-down throws against Miami in which he just snuck the ball in before a defender arrived. He made a 49-yard bomb to Megatron look easy, then struggled to move the ball for most of the game. Stafford piloted a three-and-out with just over four minutes left, which could have easily been his last chance. But his defense saved him, allowing him a chance to pull off one of the drives of the year with five terrific throws:
I thought that drive might be a turning point in the season, and then Stafford put up six points and six passing first downs in Arizona. He struggles to recognize pressure and misses too many routine throws. It happens every week. The handful of great throws each game are awesome, but Stafford often feels like an older Colin Kaepernick, with less foot speed. Or Jay Cutler with better facial expressions. Will he ever be a top-10 guy?
Least enjoyable trend
Most depressing to watch: Robert Griffin III
Griffin's middling numbers were even deceiving last week. He essentially made no "NFL throws" beyond check downs, bubble screens, and other dinks and dunks. He was often off-target on short passes and his early interceptions appeared to make him gun shy. While his pass protection against Tampa didn't help, at least four of Griffin's sacks were on him.
The Game Rewind tape on Griffin is far more damning than Jay Gruden's public scolding. Griffin seems to have no confidence in what he was seeing and no idea when to leave the pocket. There were bizarre hops at the end of his drops. This is a timing offense and Griffin is playing like a quarterback with zero confidence. 2012 feels like a long time ago, and it's worth wondering whether RGIII will be traded this offseason.